Skip to main content

Some Reflections on Self-defence as an Element in Rules of Engagement


From 16 to 20 June 2007, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Taliban were engaged in a fierce battle over Chora, Afghanistan, resulting in many civilian casualties in and around that capital city. ISAF is a coalition of states established to contribute to the maintenance of security, but which through their frequent engagement in actual warfare have become parties to the armed conflict in Afghanistan. As a result, their actions are governed by international humanitarian law. This includes the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks, i.e. attacks expected to cause civilian casualties at a level excessive in relation to the military advantage anticipated. The hostilities in and around Chora have given rise to the question whether they might have violated this prohibition (a question ultimately answered in the negative). In this debate, self-defence was among the arguments raised in justification. Self-defence usually figures as a standard clause in the rules of engagement. These are texts which, established by commanders, permit or limit the use of force by their armed forces. The chapter briefly discusses the character of these instruments and of the clauses they contain. The focus is in particular on the self-defence clause. Self-defence may be individual or collective, and it may arise on three different levels: as national self-defence, unit self-defence or individual self-defence. National self-defence is the right for states to defend themselves against an attack or imminent attack. Unit self-defence is a notion generally accepted in military practice without having a firm legal basis in most countries. In contrast, individual self-defence is recognised in every domestic legal system. In the closing chapter, the chapter focuses on the relevant Dutch legal system, because the troops involved in the battle over Chora were Dutch forces and collective unit self-defence might have been at issue as an exculpatory argument in that case.


  • Supra Note
  • Security Council
  • Armed Conflict
  • Geneva Convention
  • United Nations Security Council

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Frits Kalshoven is Professor Emeritus of Public International and Humanitarian Law, Leiden University, The Netherlands. Thyla Fontein is Master of Public International Law, Leiden University.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-90-6704-918-4_4
  • Chapter length: 17 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
USD   169.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-90-6704-918-4
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Hardcover Book
USD   219.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)


  1. 1.

    As recognised by the United Nations Security Council in Resolution 1368, adopted on 12 September 2001, the day after the Al Qaeda attacks.

  2. 2.

    United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1368, 12 September 2001, U.N. Doc. SC RES 1386 (2001), para 1; The Afghan Interim Authority in late 2002 was succeeded by the Afghan Transitional Authority.

  3. 3.

    Ibid., para 3.

  4. 4.

    See also Cole 2009, p. 145: “Although positions on the legal basis for operations varied among ISAF contributing nations, most relied on a combination of the Security Council Resolution and the consent of the government of Afghanistan. In fact, many contributing nations were pleased to distance themselves from the US notion of the Global War on Terror, understanding it (rightly or wrongly) to be the concept of an international armed conflict against international terrorist organizations wherever they might be in the world”.

  5. 5.

    “On 11 August 2003 NATO assumed leadership of the ISAF operation, ending the six-month national rotations. The Alliance became responsible for the command, coordination and planning of the force, including the provision of a force commander and headquarters on the ground in Afghanistan”. NATO website ISAF, History para 3.

  6. 6.

    United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1510, 13 October 2003, U.N. Doc. S/RES/1510 (2003).

  7. 7.

    The decision taken on 8 December 2005 by the NATO foreign ministers “was implemented on 31 July 2006, when ISAF assumed command of the southern region of Afghanistan from US-led Coalition forces, expanding its area of operations to cover an additional six provinces – Day Kundi, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, Uruzgan and Zabul …” NATO website ISAF, Stage 3, to the south, para 2.

  8. 8.

    As stated in Chapter 5, Executing Counterinsurgency Operations, of FM 3-24.

  9. 9.

    The United States also claimed to wage war against Al Qaeda: the ‘War on Terror’. We do not enter into this claim here. On the characterisation of the situation as an international armed conflict, see also Cole 2009, p. 143: “Early coalition contributions to the invasion of Afghanistan also reflected the generally held view that this was an international armed conflict. The deployment of forces and the details of their rules of engagement (ROE) were based on the premise that this was a conflict between the ‘coalition of the willing’ on the one hand and Taliban forces, al Qaeda and the Afghan army on the other”.

  10. 10.

    In terms of jus in bello, the authorities were bound by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, as well as by the generally accepted humanitarian principles and rules of customary law. Afghanistan became a party to the Additional Protocols of 1977 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions only in 2009; Geneva Conventions (I, II, III, IV), Geneva, 12 August 1949, United Nations Treaty Series, Volume Number 75; Protocol (I) Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, Geneva, 8 June 1977, United Nations Treaty Series, Volume Number 1125; Protocol (II) Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, Geneva, 8 June 1977, United Nations Treaty Series, Volume Number 1125; Information available on the website of the International Committee of the Red Cross,

  11. 11.

    Our conclusion differs theoretically, though not practically, from views expressed by Boddens Hosang and Ducheine who, in line with an opinion expressed by the Dutch Government, hold that while the relatively quiet phases of ISAF presence do not qualify as an armed conflict, the Chora incident and similar events represent temporary and local armed conflicts leading to de jure applicability of the jus in bello. Ducheine and Pouw 2009, also quoting Boddens Hosang 2009.

  12. 12.

    ICRC 2011 (emphasis added).

  13. 13.

    Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, supra note 10, provides in part that “each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:

    1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.


    2) The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.


  14. 14.

    Henckaerts and Doswald-Beck 2005.

  15. 15.

    The acronym is variously written as ROE and RoE. While official documents often choose the first version, we have preferred the second as the more elegant.

  16. 16.

    Department of Defense 2010.

  17. 17.

    Department of Defense 2011.

  18. 18.

    FM 3-0 paras 1–85, pp. 1–19.

  19. 19.

    Bumgardner et al. 2010, p. 254.

  20. 20.

    Cole et al. 2009; At the Round Table of the Institute, which was held from 8 to 10 September 2011 in Sanremo, the audience was informed that the Handbook meanwhile has been translated into a great number of languages.

  21. 21.

    Cole et al. 2009, p. 1.

  22. 22.

    Ibid., p. 2.

  23. 23.

    Ibid; The law of armed conflict is synonymous to ‘international humanitarian law’ (IHL).

  24. 24.

    A particularly notorious case was the attack on the World Trade Center, with Al Qaeda claiming that the people working there could be equalled to combatants. In general, the past ‘liberation wars’ as well as recent cases of ‘asymmetric warfare’ in the Middle East and elsewhere provide an endless stream of acts violating the most fundamental principles of IHL.

  25. 25.

    Cole et al. 2009, p. 2 (emphasis added).

  26. 26.

    Cole et al. 2009, pp. 28–62.

  27. 27.

    NATO classifies situations of this type in politically even more neutral terms as Non-Article 5 Crisis Response Operations, i.e., situations that do not (as required in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty) arise from an armed attack against one or more of the member states that would be considered an attack against them all; See AJP-3.4 (A) 2010.

  28. 28.

    FM 100-23, Appendix D, Annex A: ROE Card, Joint Task Force for Somalia Relief Operations—Ground Forces.

  29. 29.

    Cole et al. 2009, pp. 71–75.

  30. 30.

    The cards provide that before opening fire in self-defence, and “if time and circumstances permit … [y]ou are to warn by shouting”. This suggests that the model RoE presented in the Handbook are soldiers cards. These characteristically contain far less policy, if any, than do the RoE directed at higher levels.

  31. 31.

    Cole et al. 2009, pp. 83–85.

  32. 32.

    Thus, the identical provision in Article 1 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocol I of 1977, supra note 10; text available on the website of the ICRC,

  33. 33.

    An important exception is the United States, where unit self-defence is not merely a right but an obligation, and individual self-defence is a derivate of unit self-defence: “Unit commanders always retain the inherent right and obligation to exercise unit self-defense in response to a hostile act or demonstrated hostile intent. Unless otherwise directed by a unit commander as detailed below, military members may exercise individual self-defense in response to a hostile act or demonstrated hostile intent. When individuals are assigned and acting as part of a unit, individual self-defense should be considered a subset of unit self-defense. As such, unit commanders may limit individual self-defense by members of their unit.” Operational Law Handbook 2012, Chapter 5, E 2, a (1) Inherent Right of Self-Defense.

  34. 34.

    For an author who paid particularly close attention to the notion of unit self-defence, see Stephens 1998.

  35. 35.

    The term ‘individual self-defence’ is also used as the counterpart of ‘collective self-defence’.

  36. 36.

    Ministers van Buitenlandse Zaken, Defensie en Ontwikkelingssamenwerking 2007.

  37. 37.

    Ministerie van Defensie 2010.

  38. 38.

    Fournier 2007.

  39. 39.

    Military Technical Agreement Between the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Interim Administration of Afghanistan (‘Interim Administration’), Annex A, Section 1.

  40. 40.

    Wetboek van strafrecht, 3 March 1881, Articles 2 and 4 of the Dutch Military Criminal Code from; Borghouts et al. 2006, p. 15.

  41. 41.

    Wet Internationale Misdrijven, 16 August 2009, from

  42. 42.

    Wetboek van Militair Strafrecht, 27 April 1903, from

  43. 43.

    Wetboek van Strafrecht, supra note 40.

  44. 44.

    De Graaff 1965.

  45. 45.

    Article 41 states: “1. A person who commits an offense where this is necessary in the defense of his person or the person of another, his or another person’s integrity or property, against immediate, unlawful attack is not criminally liable [justification]. 2. A person exceeding the limits of necessary defense, where such excess has been the direct result of a strong emotion brought about by the attack, is not criminally liable [excuse].”

  46. 46.

    Article 42 states: “A person who commits an offense in carrying out a legal requirement is not criminally liable [justification].”

  47. 47.

    Ambtelijk bevel.

  48. 48.

    Article 43 states: “1. A person who commits an offense in carrying out an official order issued by a competent authority is not criminally liable [justification]. 2. An official order issued without authority does not remove criminal liability unless the order was assumed by the subordinate in good faith to have been issued with authority and he complied with it in his capacity as subordinate [excuse].”

  49. 49.

    Dolman et al. 2005, p. 409.

  50. 50.

    Dolman et al. 2005, p. 406; Jorg 1996, p. 54; Kroon and Jacobs 1996, pp. 124–130; Vink 2010, pp. 86–91; Coolen and Walgemoed 2008, pp. 95–97; Coolen and Walgemoed 1996, pp. 238–241.

  51. 51.

    Article 75a states: “Een verhouding van meerdere tot mindere bestaat ten opzichte van vreemde militairen slechts voor zover zulks door Ons of van Onzentwege door door Ons aan te wijzen autoriteiten wordt bepaald.”

  52. 52.

    Kroon and Jacobs 1996; Coolen and Walgemoed 1996, p. 239.

  53. 53.

    Article 135 states: “Onder dienstvoorschrift wordt verstaan een bij of krachtens algemene maatregel van Rijksbestuur of van bestuur dan wel een bij of krachtens landsverordening onderscheidenlijk landsbesluit gegeven schriftelijk besluit van algemene strekking dat enig militair dienstbelang betreft en een tot de militair gericht ge- of verbod bevat.”

  54. 54.

    Judgment Court of Appeal (Military Division) Arnhem, The Netherlands, Case No. 21-006275-04, 4 May 2005 (“Het hof is van oordeel dat de ROE voldoen aan alle eisen, die artikel 135 van het Wetboek van Militair Strafrecht aan een dienstvoorschrift stelt”, juridisch kader para b5,; Dieben and Dieben 2005; Knoops 2008, p. 181.

  55. 55.

    Dolman et al. 2005, p. 409.

  56. 56.

    Article 38 states: “1. Niet strafbaar is hij die in tijd van oorlog binnen de grenzen zijner bevoegdheid een naar de regelen van het oorlogsrecht geoorloofd feit begaat, of wiens bestraffing strijdig zou zijn met een verdrag, geldende tussen Nederland en de mogendheid waarmede Nederland in oorlog is, of met enig voorschrift, ingevolge zodanig verdrag vastgesteld. 2. Niet strafbaar is de militair die geweld gebruikt in de rechtmatige uitoefening van zijn taak en in overeenstemming met de regels die voor de uitoefening van die taak zijn vastgesteld.”

  57. 57.

    Article 71 states: “In dit wetboek wordt onder oorlog mede verstaan: een gewapend conflict dat niet als oorlog kan worden aangemerkt en waarbij het Koninkrijk is betrokken, hetzij ter individuele of collectieve zelfverdediging, hetzij tot herstel van internationale vrede en veiligheid.”

  58. 58.

    Article 1 states: “1. No act or omission is punishable which did not constitute a criminal offense under the law at the time it was committed. 2. Where a change has been made in the law subsequent to the time the offense was committed, the provisions of the law most favorable to the accused shall be applicable.”

  59. 59.

    Ducheine 2010, p. 152.

  60. 60.

    Ibid., p. 150.

  61. 61.

    AIHRC and UNAMA.

  62. 62.

    Ministerie van Defensie 2008.




  • AJP-3.4 (A) (2010) NATO, Allied Joint Doctrine for Non-Article 5 Crisis Response Operations.

  • Boddens Hosang J (2009) Aandachtspunten in de ISAF ROE vanuit het strategisch-juridische kader, 102 Militair Rechtelijk Tijdschrift 5, pp 219–226

    Google Scholar 

  • Borghouts H et al (2006) Borghouts H, Daverschot R, Gillissen G, Evaluatie toepassing militair strafprocesrecht bij uitzendingen.

  • Cole A (2009) Legal issues in forming the coalition. In: Schmitt MN (ed) The war in Afghanistan, Legal Analysis, vol 85 U.S. Naval War College International Law Studies, Naval War College, Newport, pp 141–153

    Google Scholar 

  • Coolen G, Walgemoed G (1996) Dienstopdrachten gegeven door buitenlandse militairen. Militair Rechtelijk Tijdschrift 89:238

    Google Scholar 

  • Coolen G, Walgemoed G (2008) Militair Strafrecht. Kluwer, Deventer

    Google Scholar 

  • De Graaff H (1965) Outlines of military criminal and disciplinary law in the Netherlands. Mil Law & Law War Rev 4:17

    Google Scholar 

  • Department of Defense (2010) Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (as amended through 15 August 2012).

  • Department of Defense (2011) Joint Publication 1-04, Legal Support to Military Operations, I-12: Chapter I, figure I-3.

  • Dieben D, Dieben T (2005) Aspects concerning the criminal case against Eric O.

  • Dolman M et al (2005) Dolman M, Gill T., Ducheine P., Functioneel geweldgebruik in internationale operaties: een spiegel van rechtspraak en praktijk. Militair Rechtelijk Tijdschrift 10:369

    Google Scholar 

  • Ducheine P (2010) De status van aanwijzingen van buitenlandse commandanten bij de beoordeling van functioneel militair geweldgebruik. Militair Rechtelijk Tijdschrift 103(3):145

    Google Scholar 

  • Ducheine P, Pouw E (2009) Operaties in Afghanistan: Rechtsbases en rechtsregimes, Research Paper 91, Faculty of Military Sciences, Netherlands Defence Academy, p 34.

  • Fournier S (2007) NATO Military Interventions Abroad: How ROE are adopted and jurisdictional rights negotiated. Paper presented at the XVth international congress of social defence entitled: “Criminal Law between war and peace: Justice and cooperation in criminal matters in international military interventions”, Toledo, Spain.

  • Jorg N (1996) De zaak Clegg. Militair Rechtelijk Tijdschrift 89(2):54

    Google Scholar 

  • Kroon W, Jacobs M (1996) Rules of engagement: Een verkenning. Militaire Spectator 166(3):124–130

    Google Scholar 

  • Knoops G (2008) Defenses in Contemporary International Criminal Law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Leiden

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Stephens D (1998) Rules of engagement and the concept of unit self defense. Naval Law Rev 45:126–151

    Google Scholar 

  • Vink A (2010) Grenzen aan geweldgebruik binnen de Rules of Engagement: de Tactical Directive. Militair Rechtelijk Tijdschrift 103(2):86–91

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Frits Kalshoven .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2013 T.M.C. ASSER PRESS, The Hague, The Netherlands, and the author(s)

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Kalshoven, F., Fontein, T. (2013). Some Reflections on Self-defence as an Element in Rules of Engagement. In: Matthee, M., Toebes, B., Brus, M. (eds) Armed Conflict and International Law: In Search of the Human Face. T.M.C. Asser Press, The Hague, The Netherlands.

Download citation